The Church of England is the official Christian church in England, and “mother church” of the worldwide Anglican Communion. At its core is the local parish, often with one church serving community residents. Belief in Christianity had declined in the UK, but still represented 58% of the population. Agnostics and atheists accounted for 33%.
As an institution, the church was struggling to remain relevant. Less than 3% of people attended a church service in a typical month, and many more were “de-churched,” maintaining a personal relationship with God but unaffiliated with a church. Congregations were shrinking with churches nearing or reaching the point where they were no longer financially viable. Church demographics showed that it was failing to attract three groups in particular: young people, men, and the poor.
St Andrews is a parish in Chorleywood, England, which is a middle class town (population 6,814 at the 2001 census) and civil parish (population 10, 775) located approximately 25 miles outside of London. St Andrews mission is to help people in the community and beyond to experience God’s love first-hand, and become committed followers of Jesus as a result.
By 2003, the church had grown to 500 members, many attracted from neighboring churches by its top notch worship services, and array of programs. By Church of England standards, it was large and successful. But Mark Stibbe, the vicar of St Andrews, was worried.
St Andrews’ back door was wider than its front door. Mark was bothered by what he saw as a “come to us” model of church, where the worship service and the physical building were the center point – physically and spiritually – of the church’s mission. There was a lot of excellence in worship but we were pretty weak at making disciples. People would look at those leading from the front and say, “What could I possibly offer here? Everything is done so professionally.” We had a whole Sunday devoted to the work of our children’s program, the point being to get more volunteers for it. People wept at the end of the service, but we had zero response.
Mark asked me to take charge of developing a new church strategy. Believing that the real mission of St Andrews was to bring hope to those outside of the building and beyond the congregation, I started to think about how we might build a “go to them” church that would enhance the spiritual growth of our members while multiplying their impact. We needed to turn our sheep into shepherds.
Looking at our current organization, I saw a gap. We had the congregation as a whole, which had taken on the role of audience. We had small groups of between six and twelve people, who would meet during the week to chat and pray. But we had nothing in between, nothing the equivalent of an extended family – more than the size of a small group but less than 50. The early Christian church had been around communities of around this size.
I saw several practical advantages to medium-sized groups: they would be more open and inviting than small groups, which tended to become cliquish; there would be more room for members to exercise their leadership and tackle meaningful projects; and it could strengthen the social fabric of the church, by offering more opportunities for members to interact.
I went searching for some “in-between” models of church, and found one in Sheffield, England where Mike Breen, the vicar of St Thomas Crookes had been experimenting with programs built around groups of 20-50 members. His staff team spent time with me, explaining the approach in detail. That planted the seeds for our own experiment: mission shaped communities (MSCs).
Late 2003: The Call to Action
In November, I stood in front of a nearly full church, to report on my new strategy. Those hoping for a grand vision were disappointed. I described how, during the first few centuries after Christ, the church had been organized around extended family sized communities. Early believers typically met in the biggest house they could find. When they ran out of room, they would subdivide and form a new community.
I admitted that I didn’t have a precise plan for how to put my idea into practice, but I asked everyone to think about what kind of difference they could make as a part of a more intimate community. I challenged them: What’s your passion? What service-oriented program would you want to start or join, given the chance? I then announced a follow up session in a month, for anyone who might be willing to lead an MSC.
Twelve eager volunteer leaders showed up at the early December meeting. I encouraged them to talk to others in the congregation, recruit other volunteers, and start laying out plans. I told them that each group had to have a purpose that went beyond just meeting up. And one rule was sacrosanct: once an MSC grew to 50 members, it had to subdivide. Other than that, it was all up to them.
2004: The Experiment Builds Momentum
My mantra, borrowed from Mike Breen, was “low control, high accountability.” Each group was free to set its own mission, but group members knew that the whole church was expecting them to make a noticeable difference in the lives of others. I resisted giving directions about things like how often they should meet, even when asked. I’d say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you pray about it.” I met with them weekly, praying with them and encouraging them to take risks. Suddenly, they began to realize that they had gifts, unexploited talents. And, in their MSCs, they had friends – other ‘amateurs’ – saying “Come on, we can do this.”
The first MSC was up and running in January 2004. A group in a town near Chorleywood had met to hash out its mission, and noticed a gaggle of children playing football in a park across the street. Their younger sibling were shivering on the sidelines, leading one group member to suggest that they could run a club for the kids who came out each week but didn’t get to play. Soon, they were running an after-class club at a nearby school, with the full understanding among parents that they would be bringing a religious message too.
Other MSCs – one offering late night revelers rides home from night clubs – mobilized as well. We would film them at work, play the videos at church on Sunday, and encourage other parishioners to get involved. They did. By January 2005, we had grown 17 MSCs with over 400 people.
In addition to their community work, MSC members were encouraged to gather regularly outside of church, to worship, pray and plan. In the early days, many of the MSCs would set up their chairs in pew formation. I would remind them that they didn’t have to; they could “do church” however they liked.
January 2005: An Opportunity is Seized
We knew as early as June 2004 that the church was in need of a major refurbishment. The immediate thought was to go out and hire another building for the nine months it would be closed. Mark and I prayed about it with the full staff team, and together we realized there was another option, one that would get us to the next level with the MSCs. We decided not to find an alternate space for services. We encouraged the church membership to join an MSC, if they weren’t already part of one as we would be meeting in our MSCs each Sunday, save for the fourth Sunday in every month where we would worship altogether in a large school hall.
Some critics warned that we would lose as many as 200 members. Instead, nearly 1,000 men, women and children signed up. I’m still not altogether sure where they all came from. It was quite an intense period. People would come in to the church to fill out a registration form, and we’d be looking for MSCs to form to absorb them. It felt like Noah’s Ark; we had a pile of wood and a vision of what it should like. We launched around 20 odd MSCs in January 2005.
By the time the church was ready to reopen, our congregation had outgrown it. Some MSC members, happy with doing work rather than being “nailed to a pew,” asked if they really had to come back to church. Some were praying that the building works would never be completed. The question was – what to do when we got the church building back! We entered a time of listening. Listening to one another and in prayer. We asked each MSC leadership team to talk with their members and let us know how they wanted to move forward. We met one evening in a local hall and one by one each MSC reported back – all but one said, ‘We can’t go back to the way things were – we have only just begun the adventure!.’
September 2005: The New Model Emerges
The church reopened in September. By now, most MSCs were meeting for worship, and at other times to carry out their mission work. While the church building and Sunday worship service was no longer our only focal point, we absolutely wanted to maintain our unity as a congregation. Mark and I came up with this:
- We encouraged everyone to attend church on the fourth Sunday of the month for a time of “celebration.” The service was repeated three times during the day, to accommodate the entire congregation.
- Once a quarter, during the month with five Sundays, there were church-wide gatherings with speakers and presentations on the practical challenges of doing good in the world.
- Church services were held at St Andrews church four times a Sunday so the main front door of the church was always open. This allowed many MSCs to return ‘home’ for Sunday worship and for those who wanted to support the church at the centre.
A typical MSC consisted of 30 to 40 adults with however many children came with them, and a volunteer leadership group of about six people. It might reach out to children, the elderly, the physically disabled, prisoners, young people in trouble with the police and local authorities, the homeless…any group in need. They met in coffee bars, school halls, youth centers, scout huts, and community halls.
We had played a bit with how large to let MSCs grow. We started thinking 72, and found that was too big. The 80/20 rule was taking hold – 20% of the people were doing 80% of the work – and attendance was dropping. Below 50 members, attendance was 90% and everyone was committed. So, when a group reached 40 in size, it needed to start thinking about multiplication. Ideally, it would happen in an organic way. For example, one group served Sunday evening supper to homeless people. In the course of their ministry, they learned that many of these people were sleeping in the park and awakening hungry the next day, so a number of the MSC members started a new group to provide breakfast.
New MSC leaders and members participated in a training course, and a church-wide teaching guide was prepared (primarily by Mark Stibbe) for use by all the MSCs in their worship discussions. Each week, I sent MSC leaders a note providing updates and asking for prayer requests. Periodically, I brought them together to set priorities and identify opportunities.
For the congregation as a whole, we published a quarterly newsletter which included news of events gathered from all the MSCs. In time, that was incorporated into a website. Many MSCs also set up websites, linked into the main church site.
From the perspective of those at StAndrews church centre, the new model involved some redeployment of staff and change of roles. For example, where the Children’s Department formerly ran programs just at the centre, it now provided materials and support for MSCs in their work with children. The new structure did not have a negative effect on church finances, although some minor MSC operating expenses eventually were church funded. MSCs operated on an annual average budget of approximately $10,000 each. Concerns about MSC reluctance about taking collections at their worship services were addressed by setting up a system allowing congregation members to direct deposit weekly / monthly donations to the church.
2008: Spreading the Word
The MSC model has attracted much interest nationally and internationally. We have been contacted for help and support by churches in Europe, North America and South America, from different denominations. The MSC department at StAndrews began to offer conferences and other support. Mark Stibbe and I were encouraged to write a book about the StAndrews experience. It was published in 2008 under the title "Breakout," and was well received, earning the 2009 Book of the Year Award from the UK Christianity Magazine. We were also invited to be part of the European Learning Committee, where the leadership teams of 15 of Europe's most pioneering churches were brought together to form a learning community. This was a very creative and inspiring environment, where challenges were set and innovation was shared.
Sheep or shepherds
- Challenge: How to transform passive followers into active leaders?
- Solution: Give people an opportunity to act on their beliefs in a low risk, high return way, working with like-minded individuals in MSCs to contribute their time and talents to something they care about.
- Challenge: How to “disorganize” into communities, without creating factions and fragmenting the congregation?
- Solution: Maintain common bonds through MSC training and worship guides, a flexible approach to Sunday worship, and congregation-wide communications.
Leading from the rear
- Challenge: What role should formal leaders play in a change effort aimed at creating self-organizing communities?
- Solution: Be a change agent, keeping people focused on the broad mission and goals, and providing them a structure and tools to contribute to it personally.
- Solution: Be a cheerleader, creating an environment of encouragement and celebration
- Challenge: How to sustain morale and momentum during a trial and error approach to change?
- Solution: When things don’t go as well as expected, always find one thing – no matter how small – that worked
- Solution: Reframe failures as learning opportunities; use them to move forward in a better way
- Between 2003 and 2008, church membership grew from between 500-600 to in excess of 1,600. The largest part of that growth was un-churched people who had been reached by MSCs and become Christians.
- 72% of the church was serving within an MSC; others were volunteering at the church centre as a support and resource base for MSCs
- In June 2008, MSCs (32 total) performed 103 pieces of outreach
Appreciate the genius of community. Being part of a community means committing to each other and to a cause you’ve set out on. It is an empowering and enabling experience.
Let people find the work that best suits them. If you force people into pre-determined slots, they’ll lose whatever enthusiasm they brought to the endeavor, and you won’t get bold and innovative contributions.
Be willing to redefine your leadership role. If you want to turn sheep into shepherds, you have to be willing to say “I don’t have a plan, what’s yours?” This is humbling. But only by doing this, will you release people’s latent talents.
Anticipate and manage resistance to change. There will always be some who would prefer things as they used to be, and may feel disenfranchised. Recognize that and help them find their way in the new order, without letting them derail it.
Drew Williams, former assistant vicar at St Andrews, current senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT
General church information
- “How many people go to Church in the UK?” at www.whychurch.org.uk/trends.php
- Research report from Tearfund: Churchgoing in the UK at www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11080
St Andrews information
- website link http://www.st-andrews.org.uk/
Mike Breen information:3DM: www.3dministries.com
Book information: ‘Breakout’ – co-authored by Mark Stibbe and Drew Williams and published by Authentic. ISBN 13: 978-86024-596-1